In 2019, a number of Democrats hoping to secure the presidential nomination argued that it made sense for top party officials to engage with Fox News as a means of recruiting some potential swing voters and, if nothing else, driving President Donald Trump crazy.
Former Vice President Joe Biden emerged victorious from that primary promising to run a presidential campaign on the notion that he could reach voters of various ideological stripes, including those Democrats who may have stayed home or cast a ballot for Trump in 2016. But so far, he has steered clear of appearing on the nation’s highest-watched channel.
The Biden campaign views his absence from Fox as calculated but not universal. Rather than having the candidate on air, they are peppering the Trump-supportive network with prominent surrogates. They feel like the strategy is working.
“If you’re watching MSNBC, we have you,” a Biden campaign official said. “It seems like a more worthwhile endeavor to go on Fox, even if the questions are insane.”
But Biden's personal dismissal of the network does stand in contrast to other Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, who appeared on Fox News multiple times during the campaign four years ago. And it illustrates a press strategy that could best be described as: first, do no harm.
“There are some Fox platforms one can go on and not lose their dignity,” said Philippe Reines, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton who pushed for the secretary of state to appear more on Fox News in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
But, he added: “If the election were held tomorrow, Joe Biden would win. To some extent, this isn't some tipping point.”
The question of whether or not Democrats should engage Fox News is one of the constant tactical debates of any electoral cycle. The network has a well-known conservative bias. And at times it has essentially become the communications arm of the Trump White House, with recent interviews with the president bordering on campaign promotion sessions.
This week alone, the president has sat down for an interview with Fox News weekend host Jeanine Pirro. He called to check in with his longtime friend Sean Hannity, and promised the Fox & Friends morning crew during a telephone interview that he would come on the show once a week through the election (F&F co-host Steve Doocy threw cold water on that, however, saying the network will “take it on a case-by-case basis, and Joe Biden as well”).
For some Democrats, there simply is no upside in trying to elbow in on Fox programming; there may, in fact, be a downside in the form of legitimizing the network.
Biden’s team, to that end, has approached the conservative cable news network cautiously. Since sitting down for a brief interview with Chris Wallace during the heart of the Democratic primary voting in March, Biden has done zero interviews or events with the network, and according to campaign insiders, there’s no plan at the moment to change that. Fox News hosts and producers have been publicly and privately frustrated with the general lack of interest from the Biden campaign in ramping up high-profile surrogates and candidate appearances on the conservative news channel.
But rather than stonewall Fox News altogether, the Biden campaign has dispatched staff to appear on the somewhat down-the-middle daytime programs with the network’s less ideological hosts compared to its overtly right-wing primetime stars.
Staff including senior adviser Symone Sanders and communications director Kate Bedingfield have made regular daytime appearances on Fox News, while national spokesman T J Ducklo recently sat down for an interview on Bret Baier’s show. The campaign keeps tabs on the small stable of Democratic advisers, consultants, and businesspeople who regularly appear on Fox News, sending daily surrogate talking points and info the campaign wants to hammer home. And Biden’s team also coordinates and encourages national politicians with experience on Fox News to appear on the network, leaning on Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Why the campaign has chosen to send surrogates is strictly a matter of politics. There’s an understanding by insiders that while a large segment of the audience may ignore their message—and while the channel’s bombastic opinion hosts may mock Biden or take his comments out of context—the campaign believes it can nibble at the margins and convince a small number of Fox News viewers that the former vice president is an acceptable choice.
One Biden insider conceded that while the campaign believes Fox News amplifies “blatant lies from Donald Trump to aid in his re-election,” it was strategically important to reach some possible persuadable voters.
“They shouldn’t be treated like a real news organization because they lack the standards and ethics of real journalists,” the insider said. “But that doesn’t mean the campaign doesn’t value voters who watch Fox News, and sometimes it’s important to speak to those folks.”
Ryan, who made Fox News appearances a major part of his brief 2020 presidential bid’s media strategy, said Biden was “1,000 percent” easier to swallow for Fox News audiences than Hillary Clinton, an advantage that the current Democratic nominee could exploit. But when asked about whether Biden should appear on Fox News before the election, he demurred, suggesting the campaign could be leaving votes on the table by ignoring the conservative network.
“That's up to them, but I always think it's important to go on there, and, you know, I'm happy to do it. I mean, there aren't many persuadables left,” Ryan said. “But they're watching Fox, there's no question. They're not watching MSNBC."
Since locking up the nomination, Biden has been fairly modest with his press hits, even as the COVID-pandemic has forced him to drastically cut back on all the other ways he could interact with voters. But his reluctance to engage with the network can also be attributed to Fox New’s recent track record.
Many of Biden’s top staff have not forgotten that Fox News spent months enthusiastically insinuating that Biden tilted the foreign policy scales to benefit his son in Ukraine. Fox News has zealously embraced the idea that the 77-year-old former vice president is not mentally fit to occupy the White House, despite endlessly hyping a president who is just a few years younger.
The former vice president took a very different approach to the conservative media giant than his primary rivals. During the 2016 campaign, candidates like Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gamely participated in Fox News interviews and town halls, arguing that their campaigns wanted to speak to broader audiences. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who said she wouldn’t “ask Democratic primary voters to tune into an outlet that profits from racism and hate in order to see our candidates,” used her decision to boycott the network as an opportunity to build out her supporter contact list.
The Biden campaign’s decision to leave Fox News largely to the occasional staff appearance and the network’s Democratic contributors also differs (however slightly) from Clinton’s approach to Fox News in 2016. The former secretary of state, who had a far more contentious history with the network than Biden ever had, participated in a Fox News town hall during the 2016 Democratic primary, and sat for interviews with hosts Chris Wallace and Bret Baier during the general election.
Fox News isn’t the only national news outlet frustrated by Biden’s lighter-touch media approach.
While many news organizations have opted against sending large teams of reporters on the campaign trail because of the pandemic, some of the national reporters covering the former vice president have lamented the somewhat limited press access. The Biden campaign has agreed to some national media interviews in the weeks since the convention. Since clinching the nomination, he’s conducted interviews with most of the major television networks, and appeared occasionally on CNN and MSNBC.
But Biden’s campaign has largely focused its recent media energy on local news television in swing states, noting that since the beginning of the pandemic local television viewership ratings have risen. Over the past few weeks, the campaign has booked Biden or campaign surrogates on several local news hits a day in states like Arizona, Wisconsin, and Florida. And the former vice president has also begun pouring money into television ads, announcing a $65-million ad buy for health care-themed ads in 10 key battleground states.
Biden up with new broadcast and digital ads in Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin focusing on pre-existing condition protections.
here's one pic.twitter.com/YhVVTjnIfF
— Alex Thompson (@AlxThomp) September 16, 2020
Still, the Biden surrogates who do appear on Fox News believe the campaign and Democrats generally should engage with the network, even if some of the channel’s programming is deeply misleading and inflammatory.
Robert Wolf, a former Wall Street executive and Obama supporter who remains close with the 44th president, is one of the Democrats who gets paid to regularly appear on the network. The former top banking figure recently announced he is hosting a fundraiser for Biden, with whom he occasionally shares his opinions on business and the economy. In an email to The Daily Beast, Wolf noted that while he is not an official campaign surrogate, he does his best to positively represent Biden’s economic vision.
“Biden’s push to win over Fox viewers is by making clear his values and his policy platforms such as Build Back Better and climate change that work for them and all Americans,” he said.
“My role as a Fox contributor and staunch Democrat is to provide the facts and a balanced opinion predominantly as it relates to the economy and business, and point out key differences between Trump and what a Biden presidency would look like.”
—Sam Brodey contributed reporting.